FLASHBACK: Fred Savage & Jenny Lewis In Cult Classic 'The Wizard,' AKA 1989's Biggest Nintendo Ad

by Whitney Matheson, Video by Ashley Crossan 11:53 AM PST, December 18, 2014
Playing FLASHBACK: Fred Savage & Jenny Lewis In Cult Classic 'The Wizard,' AKA 1989's Biggest Nintendo Ad

Twenty-five years ago this week, kids were finalizing their holiday wish lists, which probably included a Nintendo home gaming system or the company's brand new handheld device, the Game Boy.

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They were also gearing up to see The Wizard, a brand new movie about -- what else? -- Nintendo.

Older generations may not recall The Wizard, but I do, since it was aimed right at my demographic. For one thing, it starred Fred Savage, a kid my age I saw each week on The Wonder Years. For another, it offered our first peek at Nintendo's highly anticipated new game, Super Mario Bros. 3. And even though I wasn't a serious gamer, that still sounded fairly interesting.

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The Wizard follows two runaway brothers, Corey and Jimmy (Savage and Luke Edwards) on a cross-country trip to compete in a Nintendo tournament. Savage is chatty and a quick thinker, but Jimmy hasn't spoken much since the tragic death of his twin sister.

Along the way, the brothers befriend a spunky girl named Haley, played by child actress and now-famous singer-songwriter Jenny Lewis. The desperate family members who try to locate them include the boys' father, played by Beau Bridges, and their older brother, played by rising star Christian Slater. (Earlier that year Slater had earned accolades for much darker roles in Heathers and Gleaming the Cube.)

When ET visited the set of The Wizard in 1989, Savage was, well, pumped. And while some media had been comparing the film to Rain Man, another movie about two bros on a cross-country journey, Savage disagreed.

"No offense to Dustin [Hoffman], but it's a totally different movie," Savage said. "It's not about how their relationship grows or anything." A second later, he pointed and winked at the interviewer. "You should see it!" he added, grinning.

Product placement was hardly new in the '80s -- sales of Reese's Pieces exploded after E.T. -- but The Wizard was essentially a feature-length commercial, with nearly every scene discussing and showing Nintendo products. Nearly 20 games are featured, and new items are treated like the Holy Grail.

In one of the movie's most memorable scenes, a young tournament competitor elicits gasps when he brandishes Nintendo's new Power Glove. "I love the Power Glove," he says. "It's so bad." (Don't forget, "bad" meant "good" in 1989.)

The Wonder Years' run lasted through 1993, but '89 was a watershed year for the series, which beat out Cheers, The Golden Girls and other hit series to win the Emmy and Golden Globe for Best Comedy. As Savage noted, TV Guide deemed it the "classiest show" on television.

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"When we first read the script, we knew it was something special," Savage said then. "It wasn't just like a half-hour sitcom. We couldn't quite put our finger on it, but it had something magical. So we were overjoyed to hear it's really taken off."

Between the promotional sound bites for ET's crew, Savage threw in some personal details, like his admiration for Jack Nicholson ("He steals the show every time") and what it was like to play his first slot machine ("I lost -- better luck next time."). And when asked about kissing actress Danica McKellar on The Wonder Years, though, he just blushed and stammered.

After The Wizard, director Todd Holland went on to helm episodes of Twin Peaks, My So-Called Life, The Larry Sanders Show and other notable series. Co-star Luke Edwards still acts but may be best known for his early work in Newsies, Little Big League and the TV movie I Know My First Name is Steven.

Re-watch the film carefully today, and you may also spot the film debut of The Great Gatsby's Tobey Maguire in the tournament scene. Another scene features the Cabazon Dinosaurs, a California tourist attraction that also pops up in Pee-wee's Big Adventure.

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Upon its release, The Wizard received terrible reviews -- Roger Ebert called it " a cynical exploitation film with a lot of commercial plugs" -- and it flopped at the box office. Today, though, it's regarded as a cult flick, particularly among gamers of a certain age. The most diehard fans have even posted meticulous analyses of the film's factual and continuity errors, of which there are many.

"While it's impossible to argue with [the critics], it doesn't prevent the storyline from offering a generous dose of goofy entertainment -- albeit in a cringeworthy kind of way," Guardian writer and fan Tola Onanuga noted in her essay about The Wizard earlier this year. "Frankly, anyone who doesn't get a warm and fuzzy feeling watching a grief-stricken young boy cure his emotional trauma by playing Super Mario Bros. 3 in front of a euphoric live audience is a heartless monster."

These days Savage is a successful TV director with credits including Modern Family, The Goldbergs, 2 Broke Girls and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Watching him speak as an adolescent, it seems he wasn't just starring on TV's classiest show, but he was one of TV's classiest actors.

"I try to make a good impression on people," he said then. "[My parents] put me back down if I get a big head at any time."

He added, "Some of the people don't like being asked for their autograph or don't like to have a picture taken with fans. ... But these are the people that made you what you are. These are the people that watch your show. You at least owe it to them."

Whitney Matheson is a journalist and pop-culture critic who founded USA Today's award-winning blog Pop Candy. Follow her on Twitter at @whitneymatheson.